In a speech at the Export-Import Bank’s annual conference in Washington last week President Obama said:
“Our single greatest asset is the innovation and the ingenuity and creativity of the American people. It is essential to our prosperity and it will only become more so in this century. But it’s only a competitive advantage if our companies know that someone else can’t just steal that idea and duplicate it with cheaper inputs and labor. There’s nothing wrong with other people using our technologies, we welcome it – we just want to make sure that it’s licensed and that American businesses are getting paid appropriately.”
To make sure that your business is in a position to be paid appropriately for its innovation, ingenuity and creativity it must take advantage of intellectual property protections. The phrase “intellectual property” is often used. But what exactly is it?
If it’s going to be a cornerstone of competitiveness in this century, it’s worth taking a closer look at what it means and how to take advantage of it.
Intellectual property is an umbrella term. It’s a portfolio of items that includes patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. They are intangible property rights. But don’t let their intangible nature fool you. They can be worth a lot of money.
Before we discuss how you can take advantage of them, let me do a ten second primer on what patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets are and how they differ from one another so we’re all talking about the same thing.
A patent is a grant given by a government that gives an inventor the sole right to make, use and sell a specific invention for a specific period of time. [By the way, fellow AllBusiness blogger Stephen Key has an entire blog devoted to inventions and offers wonderful insights about the subject.]
A trademark is also a grant by a government that protects a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs. These marks serve to identify and distinguish a company or its products and services from those of others and federally registered marks are denoted with an R in a circle.
Some designs can be protected by patent (for example a unique bottle cap or pour spout) but they can also be protected by trademark, for example Perrier’s distinctively shaped green bottle. It’s an instantly recognizable characteristic.
A copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. The contents of this website, for example, including each individual article and graphic image you see on it are all protected by copyright.
A phrase, such as American Express’ “Don’t leave home without it” can be protected by trademark as well as copyright.
A trade secret is information that is not generally known to the public (i.e. secret) that also provides some economic benefit to the holder precisely because it is secret. A secret recipe, for example, is a trade secret. Your employees’ social security numbers are not. Sure, they should be confidential; but you’re not deriving economic benefit from those numbers.